The Great Compassion: Buddhism and Animal Rights
Buddhism ought to be an animal rights religion par excellence. It teaches the unity of all life; it holds kindness and compassion to be the highest virtues; and it explicitly includes animals in its moral universe. Buddhist rules of conduct—including the First Precept, “Do not kill”—apply to our treatment of animals as well as our treatment of human beings. This would lead us naturally to expect Buddhists to oppose all forms of animal exploitation.
There is, in fact, wide agreement that most forms of animal exploitation are contrary to Buddhist teaching, although crimes against animals are sometimes—inexplicably—treated as minor offenses. Hunting, fishing, animal husbandry and the use of animals in entertainment are forbidden to Buddhists. But on the question of meat-eating, controversy and confusion reign. Many Buddhists eat meat—although many do not—and monks, priests and teachers sometimes defend meat-eating as consistent with Buddhist teachings.
Western Buddhists—influenced by a
lifetime of the most animal-intensive diet the world has ever known—are especially creative in fashioning Buddhist rationales to justify their addiction to meat, eggs and dairy. In 1994, in a forum on meat-eating published in Tricycle, a popular Buddhist magazine, Bodhin Kjolhede, Abbot of the American Zen Center in Rochester, New York and dharma heir to Roshi Philip Kapleau, viewed with dismay these efforts to use the Buddhadharma to rationalize meat-eating. “It is sad to see how many American Buddhists are managing to find a self-satisfying accommodation to eating meat. Some airily cite the doctrine of Emptiness, insisting that ultimately there is no killing and no sentient being being killed. Others find cover behind the excuse that taking life is the natural order of things and, after all, ‘the life of a carrot and the life of a cow are equal.’ ” Most of his fellow contributors used the forum to promote precisely the kinds of accommodation to which Kjolhede objected.
This is a critical moment in the history of Buddhism. The next great Buddhist manifestation, Western Buddhism, is still in its formative stage. It has not yet ossified into an orthodoxy that brooks no dissent. There is still time to reject these “self-satisfying accommodations” and tie ourselves firmly to the ethical foundation of the Buddhadharma: boundless compassion for all sentient beings. And it is vital that we do so. Buddhism cannot be true to itself until Buddhists resolve their ambivalence toward nonhuman animals and extend the full protection of their compassion to the most harmless and helpless of those who live at our mercy in the visible realms.
Back to The Great Compassion